is an experimental play by American playwright Eugene O’Neill, first published and performed in 1928. Making extensive use of stream-of-consciousness asides and soliloquies, the play tells the life story of Nina Leeds, whom we meet just after her fiancé’s death in World War II. If uncut, Strange Interlude
lasts around five hours in performance, for which reason it is often staged over several evenings, or with a break for dinner. The play’s frank exploration of topics, including adultery and abortion, made it controversial in its time, and it was widely banned outside New York City. The title references a line from near the end of the play, spoken by Nina, "Our lives are merely strange dark interludes in the electrical display of God the Father!"
The play opens in the year 1919, in the home of Nina’s father. The writer Charles Marsden is talking to Nina’s father, Professor Leeds. The two men discuss Nina, whose fiancé, Gordon, has been killed while serving in the Air Force. Nina has suffered a nervous breakdown. Professor Leeds fears that she is angry with him for persuading
Gordon to postpone his marriage to Nina until after the war. Nina enters and announces that she wants to work as a military nurse. Leeds resists. In a soliloquy, he admits to himself that he felt jealous of Gordon. He finally gives Nina permission to do as she wishes.
Act 2 takes place a year later. Professor Leeds has died and Nina returns to the family home accompanied by two men: Sam Evans, who loves her, and Ned Darrell, a friend. Evans confides to Marsden that he intends to ask Nina to marry him. Marsden retorts that Nina is still in love with Gordon. Darrell tells Marsden that Nina has developed a martyr complex, which she expresses by sleeping with the wounded soldiers at the hospital where she works. He suggests that marrying Evans might be good for her. In soliloquy, we learn that Nina, too, is frightened of her state of mind. She experiences no grief for her father, and she feels guilty about her sexual behavior. When Marsden advises her to marry Evans she agrees.
Seven months later, in Act 3, Nina is pregnant. Evans, her husband, doesn’t know yet. Marsden guesses and feels jealous, realizing that his paternal feelings for Nina are romantic. Evans’s mother learns about the pregnancy and begs Nina to abort: the family has a predisposition to “insanity,” and raising an insane child might threaten Evans’s own sanity. She advises Nina to conceive by a lover and raise the child as Evans’s. Nina agrees to this plan.
Another seven months pass. Evans is failing in his career in advertising. Nina has given up trying to love him. Marsden and Darrell visit. When Marsden takes Evans to run an errand, Nina tells Darrell about Mrs. Evans’s advice and Darrell agrees. Nina and Darrell arrange to conceive a child together.
Act 5 takes place five months later. It is 1922. Nina is pregnant again, and again she is keeping it secret from Evans. His career is failing and he believes his marriage has failed too. He decides to offer Nina a divorce, for her own happiness, but he cannot bring himself to go through with it. Nina has fallen for Darrell, who desires her but does not love her. Marsden arrives and senses Nina and Darrell’s relationship. He leaves again, and Darrell tells Nina he wants to end their affair. Nina says she will divorce Evans to be with him, but Darrell refuses to allow this. Instead, he tells Evans that Nina is pregnant and leaves to sail to Europe. Nina resolves to tell Evans that he is not the father of her child, but finds herself unable to do so.
At the beginning of Act 6, Evans has begun to succeed in his work, and Nina, too, is happy as a devoted mother to her son, Gordon. When Nina teases Marsden about his bachelor lifestyle, Marsden tells her he has seen Darrell with a woman, making Nina jealous. Later, Darrell arrives and he and Nina share a passionate embrace. Darrell asks Nina to leave her husband, but she refuses. Later, Evans, Darrell, and Marsden all sit together. In soliloquy, Nina delights in being desired by all three men.
Act 7 jumps forward in time to 1934. Gordon is eleven, and the Evans family lives on Park Avenue. Gordon does not understand why Darrell is there. Darrell, who has abandoned medicine for biology, is bitter about his affair with Nina. Nina begs him to go away for a few years. Gordon witnesses them kiss each other goodbye, and it alienates him from his mother. Nina realizes this and she criticizes Darrell to Gordon in order to win back Gordon’s affections.
Another ten years later, in 1944, Gordon is rowing in a college race. Nina, Evans, Darrell, Marsden, and Gordon’s fiancée, Madeline Arnold, are watching from the deck of Evans’s boat. Nina jealously resents Madeline. In a moment alone, Nina and Darrell discuss their affair, agreeing that it is over. Nina asks him to persuade Gordon not to marry Madeline, but Darrell refuses. Instead, she asks him to help her tell Evans that he is not Gordon’s father. Marsden gets drunk and confesses his love for Nina. Nina tries to put Madeline off Gordon by telling her about the Evans family’s history of insanity, but Darrell prevents it. Gordon wins his race. Evans, over-excited by the result, has a stroke.
In Act 9, Evans has died. Gordon and Madeline are in mourning, and Gordon is angry about his mother’s affair. He slaps Darrell, before apologizing, admitting that he also admires Darrell and Nina for refusing to act on their love out of respect for Evans. Darrell asks Nina to marry him, but she refuses. Instead, she confesses to Marsden that she loves him, and the two agree to marry. Gordon’s plane appears overhead, and she calls out to him that he must make himself happy. Her words make her realize that she was misguided in depending on her son to make her happy. She peacefully resolves to grow old with Marsden.